Sheila Pantry, OBE
According to the dictionaries, ergonomics is the study of the relationship between workers and their environment. Consistently high and increasing numbers of occupational accidents and diseases continue to stem from a lack of attention to ergonomics in the workplace. Much more focus has been placed on research and high technology than on practical actions in the places where most people work.
To date, the application of ergonomic principles has still reached only a limited number of workplaces despite its very great potential for improving working conditions and productivity.
As a result, the gaps remain large in applying ergonomics to workplaces in different sectors and countries, as shown by the many reports on occupational accidents, work-related diseases, major industrial accidents and unsatisfactory conditions listed in databases produced worldwide.
What does ergonomics really mean?
Ergonomics is about ensuring a good 'fit' between people and the things they use, because people vary enormously in height and weight, in physical strength, in ability to handle information and in many other ways. Designers use information about human abilities, attributes and limitations to ensure that our equipment, work and workplaces allow for these variations.
For example, a car built only for 'average' sized drivers might require larger people to crouch, while smaller people might be unable to reach the pedals. Designers use information on variations in size, reach etc to produce cars that most people can operate comfortably and conveniently. It is recognised that there must be some element of compromise where extremes of, for instance, body size are involved.
Where are the advantages of ergonomics?
Effective use of ergonomics will make work safer, healthier and more productive, by designing tasks, equipment and workstations to suit the operator can reduce operator error, accidents and ill health.
Failure to observe ergonomic principles can therefore have serious repercussions, not only for individuals but also for the whole organisation.
What kinds of problems can ergonomics help to solve?
Some of the most obvious examples are to do with body size: for instance, work surfaces that are uncomfortable to sit at because they do not allow enough clearance for users' legs. There is, however, guidance available for designers and installers of equipment, to help them to avoid such problems. For example, British Standard 3044, Guide to ergonomic principles in the design and selection of office furniture will help.
Likewise, the International Labour Office (ILO) recently published Ergonomic checkpoints provides a collection of practical, easy-to-use ergonomic solutions for improving the working conditions. This publication is one of the best ones to come from the ILO, and is a unique compilation of 128 ergonomic checkpoints has been developed for all those who want to improve their working conditions. These checkpoints, which can be used to check either workplace conditions on the spots or workplace plans at the design stage, are suited in particular to small and medium-sized enterprises. All the checkpoints are illustrated and cover the main ergonomic topics at the workplace. You will find this reference in CISDOC and other databases.
Elsewhere examples exist worldwide, of practical locally based ergonomic improvements including ergonomically designed hand tools, carts, materials handling techniques, workstation arrangements, worksite welfare facilities and group work methods, in addition to the ergonomics applications developed by qualified specialists or well-trained practitioners.
If hand tools are taken as example we can see that many require a very wide grip. Such tools can impose severe strain if used frequently, particularly for people with small hands. It is advised that handles to tools with a hand span, such as pliers, should be between 50 mm and 67 mm apart, for the user to exert the necessary force with maximum efficiency. High hand forces should be avoided where possible and handles should be designed so that they do not dig into the palm but spread the load over the largest possible area. Ergonomically designed hand tools can reduce injuries and increase productivity.
Likewise, if you look at the layout of controls and displays you can see that they influence the safety of a system. Typical problems are:
- switches that can be inadvertently knocked on;
- control panel layouts that are difficult to understand;
- displays that force the user to bend or stretch to read them properly;
- badly identified controls that the operator could select by mistake;
- emergency stop buttons that are difficult to reach.
Systematic analysis of how people actually use equipment can highlight problems that need to be designed out.
This again underlines the importance of manufacturers, designers and installers applying ergonomic principles.
How can you tell whether something is ergonomically satisfactory?
Consider all the ways and circumstances in which the equipment or system may be used and then ask yourself:
- does it suit your body size?
- does it also suit all other users?
- can you see and hear all you need to readily?
- do you understand all the information that is presented?
- do errors occur frequently, and is it easy to recover from them?
- does the equipment or system cause discomfort if you use it for any length of time?
- is it convenient to use?
- is it easy to learn to use?
- is it compatible with other systems in use?
- could any of these aspects be improved?
- do other users have similar reactions?
Such questions can help to identify possible mismatches between the abilities and physical attributes of people and the demands of the equipment with which they work. A systematic evaluation by trained staff may be needed to identify more obscure problems. How will you know when something is wrong? If the job, the equipment and the workplace are not designed to fit the people who work with them, mistakes are more likely and some of these could lead to accidents. If you examine the circumstances surrounding incidents and near-misses in your workplace you may find inadequacies such as people being:
- unable to see important displays;
- unable to reach controls;
- unable to work in a comfortable position;
- overloaded with too much information at one time;
- inattentive because there is too little to do.
The people who do a particular job are in a good position to identify especially awkward or difficult tasks, but remember that they may have become used to poor design over time. Some jobs may be known to be excessively tiring, or liable to cause aches and pains. Make-shift adaptations to machines - for example lengthened levers, extra labels on switches, blocks of wood or cushions used to alter working positions - can be an indication that the design of the equipment or the job needs attention. Similarly, medical and absence records may reveal patterns of injury or complaint that could be associated with particular jobs or tasks.
What can you do if you think there is an ergonomics problem in your workplace?
A minor alteration may be all that is necessary to make a task easier and safer to perform: for instance, height-adjustable chairs to enable individual operators to work at their preferred work height; platforms to help operators to reach badly located controls (but beware of allowing access to danger points). If shadows or overall lighting levels are a problem, local lighting for particular tasks may be an easily adopted solution. Always make sure that any alterations are properly evaluated by the people who do the job and be careful that a change introduced to solve one problem does not cause difficulties elsewhere. Where a straightforward solution does not seem possible, and a radical redesign seems to be called for, you should consult the appropriate experts.
Computerised services from SilverPlatter containing ergonomics information are the following:
- OSH-ROM compact disc from SilverPlatter. OSH-ROM contains databases such as
HSELINE from the UK Health and Safety Executive, NIOSHTICS from the US National
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and CISDOC from the International
Labour Office in Geneva.
- OSH-CD also from SilverPlatter which contains the full text of the Health and Safety Executive's publications and the appropriate legislation.
Many other text exists which gives good advice. Ted Megaw's chapter "Ergonomics in the workplace" which is in the book I edited entitled Occupational Health gives a good appreciation of the problems. Again you will find this reference in OSH-ROM.
So, make sure that your workplace is really suited to you!
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